CEDAR FALLS — Proponents and opponents of a June 25 $69.9 million bond issue referendum laid out their cases Monday for and against a new high school.
For about 45 minutes during the Board of Education’s public comment period, 16 Cedar Falls Community Schools residents spoke about the existing building at 1015 Division St. and the estimated $112.9 million construction project. If approved by voters, the new school would be built on 50 acres off Hudson Road near the University of Northern Iowa with the help of $43 million of the district’s 1 percent sales tax revenues.
Supporters talked about safety, accessibility, learning conditions and community investment.
“It’s just very clear that it’s time to make a change in our community,” said Jamie Becker, who graduated four years ago. “I plan to live here and grow a family here, and it’s worth the investment.”
Those opposed sounded the alarm about rising taxes and district debt levels.
“It’s been a joy to put out ‘Vote No’ signs for the past two weeks,” said resident Larry Wyckoff. “People come flying out of their houses next to the ones we’re at and want one in their yard. Citizens are sick and tired of being treated like cash cows for your projects without the due diligence of planning for these extreme expenditures.”
A number of students affirmed that planning, though, as they argued that a new school is necessary. Some talked about their experiences at other buildings that have been renovated in contrast to the current high school.
“I will be walking back in time 40 years by the time I get there,” said Greenley Wilks, who will be a ninth-grader at Holmes Junior High in the fall.
Analise Gilbert just finished sixth grade at Orchard Hill Elementary School, where ongoing renovations allowed it to stop using portable buildings.
“It helps to make our learning environment more positive and productive,” she said of that school’s upgrades. “I think that we should have the same thing with the new high school.”
Current and recent high school students attested to those conditions.
Sabrina Leistikow, who just finished her junior year, said at lunch she would pack up her meal and bring it to a second floor social studies classroom “because the cafeteria is too small to accommodate even a third of our high school population at a given time.” Climate control is a concern, as well. “In the math hall, second floor social studies and parts of the first floor, it gets unbearably hot,” she said, noting some areas of the building are air conditioned.
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Others talked about the difficulty of getting around the school on crutches or in a wheelchair and how easy it would be for someone with a gun to get into the building because of the number of doors open in the building during the day.
“It takes both fabulous educators and facilities that are safe, clean, have the ability to use proper technology, and even can maintain a functioning temperature to allow students to focus on learning,” said Orchard Hill teacher Kim Kranz. “What was good enough 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago and so on is not good enough now.”
Jim Skaine, a bond issue opponent, suggested the building is not getting in the way of a great education.
“The teachers and students have produced high achievement in all the activities that have taken place over the years,” he said. “Recently among those achievements are state champions and national honors recipients. Yes, the current Cedar Falls High School has been the scene of magnificent high school accomplishments for 55 years and it has lived up to its mission.”
If approved by voters, the $69.9 million in bond proceeds would be repaid through an increase in district property taxes over 20 years. Superintendent Andy Pattee noted that the district won’t be able to raise more in taxes than is needed to repay the bonds.
Initially, that is expected to require a property tax rate of $2.31 per $1,000 of assessed value. On a $100,000 home, officials say that will cost $10.02 per month, or $120.24 annually.
But Cathi Pingel went through the increases in her property tax bills over the past three years and calculated how much more she’ll being paying in August to illustrate the rising costs residents are already facing.
“Financially, I think it’s time we scale back on this new school, and I’m asking everybody to vote no,” she said. “I think that we need to do more research on how we can build a school that is less money.”
Ed Olthoff, citing Cedar Falls Schools’ 2017 audit, said the district “got hammered” financially. He suggested the district went from a small surplus to a much larger deficit over the last decade. He said the district has even more debt and many millions in liabilities through it employee retirement fund.
“All I’m seeing is bigger dollars for this district and I don’t know how you think you’re going to afford another bond and $43 million cash to pay for a new school,” said Olthoff.
Pattee countered that there will be no problems with paying for the school using the bond funds, based on discussions with the district’s auditor.
“Some of the things that we pay out as we invest in new infrastructure is listed as a deficit in our audit,” he said, based on requirements in state law. “It’s not based on things that are an actual payable expenses that the district incurs.”